On their own, ants are pretty dumb. It’s not their fault: Their tiny brains don’t allow for a lot of intelligence. Taken together, however, ants are some of the most evolutionarily successful animals on the planet. They account for an estimated 15 to 20 percent of the biomass of all the land animals on earth. And they didn’t get that big by making a lot of mistakes.
“Individually they’re totally incompetent,” ant expert Debra Gordon told Radio Lab, “but as colonies they do great things.”
Scientists are questioning how such an individually unintelligent animal could make so many correct decisions collectively. Though ants have a queen, the queen doesn’t order around her subjects. In reality, they exhibit an amazing ability for nonhierarchical, collective decision making.
They way ants, bees, and some fish naturally make decisions, according to Susan Milius writing for Science News, is “all about quorum.” The animals will often send off little scouts, acting individually, who report back to influence the groups as a whole. Some ants have been observed throwing other ants over their shoulders and dragging their fellow ants off to build consensus for ideas. Eventually, with individual persistence, collective decisions are made.
How those decisions are made represents one of the biggest mysteries in science, mathematician Steve Strogatz told Radio Lab. In nature, order can simply materialize from disorder. Strogatz points out that scientists (and Creationists) grapple with the question of how this happens, but still don’t understand.
The collective decision making occurs in humans, too, in ways that are little understood. “Human groups deciding as a whole have scored spooky triumphs,” Milius writes. In one test, people were asked to guess the weight of an ox. Individually, every guess was way off. Together, the median of the guesses was within 10 pounds of the correct weight of 1,198 pounds
If humans are able to exhibit such accurate collective decision making, how could the stock market and the real estate crisis go so horribly wrong? The problem, according to Stephen Pratt of Arizona State, is that ants don’t have a stock market. “If they did,” he says, “we could rely on them to have figured the whole thing out.”